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The Ageist Debate over the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals

The “Ageist” Debate with UN Health Goals-TBP

The United Nations will hold a vote in September 2015 to decide whether or not to pass 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). If approved, all 192 U.N. members will be urged to create policies addressing poverty, health and climate change to last for the next 15 years

There are a few snags. A couple of the goals are turning out to be highly controversial. One in heated debate requests that premature mortality from infectious disease be decreased by half for those younger than 50 and by 30 percent for those 50 to 69.

Critics want to know: What about 70-year-olds and older? In a letter published in The Lancet Journal, a team of British researchers called the goal ageist.

According to Peter Lloyd-Sherlock, co-author of the Lancet letter, rather than aimed at decreasing premature mortality, the goals seemed to focus on “age-specific mortality.” Lloyd-Sherlock points out: “Imagine countries that are influenced by UN targets — low- and middle- income countries. They would have to take resources away from people 70 and above.”

Lloyd-Sherlock is not alone. Many believe that mortality rates for people of every age should be addressed and that to deny anyone this is to deny them the universal right to health.

Even so, there are those that find the goal to be rather reasonable. Prabhat Jha, professor of epidemiology at the Center for Global Health Research of Toronto, and his colleagues co-wrote the reply to The Lancet’s ageist-accusing letter.

In developing nations, people do not often live to 70. Life expectancy hovers around 60. Therefore, he believes that focusing on the 50-69 age range would aid more people and thus be more effective as a long-term goal.

He also points out that people over 70 view disease and death differently than younger people. After a long life, they are willing to embrace a quick and painless death.

Besides, targeting a certain age bracket does not mean that 70-year-olds will be denied medical treatment or perceived as second-class citizens. Anything available to younger people will also be offered to those older than 70.

Where 70-year-olds will suffer, Lloyd-Sherlock says, is funding. Plenty of money has been given to mother and child health programs, but these organizations are not giving much to benefit the health of senior citizens.

“Imagine if you’re running a primary health care clinic in Gambia. You have lots of money to do things for young people. An older person comes in suffering from urinary incontinence. That’s not your agenda.”

Research shows that the amount of elderly people in developing countries is growing at a faster rate than in industrialized ones. Furthermore, average life expectancy in the developing world is sometimes higher than in wealthy nations.

Already, the amount of people older than 60 is estimated to increase by at least 50 percent in industrialized nations from 2009’s 475 million. That would mean about 1.6 billion worldwide in that age group.

By the year 2050, the U.N. predicts that 80 percent of this group will be made up of those living in developing nations.

In the Lancet letter, the authors asked that the Sustainable Development Goals be reassessed in order to include a very important group of people often left to struggle in the margins. Fortunately, changes to the U.N. health goals are still possible.

– Lillian Sickler

Sources: NPR, The Guardian, Medical Press 1, Medical Press 2
Photo: The Borgen Project